The future of brain-machine interfaces

Elon Musk gave the world a progress update on his brain-machine interface startup Neuralink on Friday, showcasing a small implant that can read and transmit the neural activity of a pig.

Why it matters: The Neuralink implant still has yet to be tested in human beings, but it’s part of a wave of brain-machine interface technologies that aim to address neurological diseases and injuries, and eventually directly link human brains to the internet.

What’s happening: In an online event, Musk showed the Neuralink device — roughly the size of a quarter — implanted in a pig’s brain, where it was able to read some neural signals in real time.

  • While Musk had billed the event as a «product demo,» Neuralink has yet to undergo clinical trials in human beings, though the company announced it had been granted FDA «breakthrough device status,» which could speed efforts in humans.
  • «It’s like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires,» said Musk. The device’s wires connect to brain centers, while the device communicates wirelessly to a computer.

The next generation of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) seek to translate brain signals into useful data or even use them to manipulate machines.

  • In 2017 Facebook announced that it wanted to create a headband that would allow people to type with just their thoughts, and last year research funded by the company showedthat sheets of electrodes placed on the cortical surface could turn thoughts into text or commands on a screen.
  • BrainCo, a Massachusetts-based startup, makes non-invasive headbands that detect electrical brain signals and purport to indicate when students are in a state of concentration. «It helps students to modulate themselves to learn better and feel better,» says Max Newlon, BrainCo’s president.

What’s next: As BCI technology improves, it could enable truly transformative applications that merge humans and machines — especially for the military, as a report released this week by researchers at the RAND Corporation outlines.

  • Cortically connecting a human brain to a machine could allow an AI to help a soldier in the field evaluate data far more rapidly than they could do alone, creating a «centaur» model combining humans and machines.
  • DARPA has funded researcherswho are studying the possibility of «synthetic telepathy,» involving virtual communication on the battlefield through the analysis of neural signals.

The catch: For any of the more ambitious uses of BCI to become a reality, scientists will need to figure out how to implant connections in the brain that can last for a decade or longer — most current versions corrode in a few years — and that can function effectively outside a lab.

  • BCI technology also carries the risk of malfunctions — and hacks by adversaries— as well as «the chance of relying too heavily on what you might term “exquisite tech,'» says Anika Binnendijk, a political scientist at RAND.
  • There are also major ethical concerns that will only grow as the technology improves — worst of all the «grave possibility that it would facilitate totalitarian control of humans,» as the bioethicists Ellen McGee and G. Q. Maguire, Jr. noted more than two decades ago.
  • That led a group of scientists working in the field to call in 2017for a declaration of «neurorights» that would address the threats posed by brain-reading technology.

The bottom line: Like all the most important emerging technologies, BCI poses two questions: Can it be done? And should it be done? We shouldn’t forget the second while figures like Musk focus on the first.


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